Jesús Bustamante is an multimedia journalist specialized in organized crime issues in his native Culiacán, Sinaloa, birthplace of the cartel that bears the name of that state in northwest Mexico. Thanks to his fame and his work, he has been able to be a fixer for international productions, helping to elucidate emblematic criminal profiles or the struggle between criminal groups during the different stages of insecurity that the state has experienced.
Figures such as the leader of the Sinaloa Cartel, Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán Loera, who some consider a legend for having been one of the most wanted fugitives in the world and having escaped twice from high security prisons in Mexico while controlling the powerful and bloodthirsty criminal group, have not only been international news but they’re also a product in high demand. Media from all over the world descended on Sinaloa hungry to know everything about the cartel.
In 2007, during the “war on drugs” launched by then-president Felipe Calderón, the coverage that Jesús did for local media focused on the crime beat: security and violence. Having built nearly two decades of experience covering these topics, he has dedicated the last nine years to working as a fixer and helping other journalists obtain information in his area of expertise.
“The war came to me. There was no need to go anywhere. The war touched my state. It was one violent event and then another. From one death you went to another and it was the same in the morning, at dawn, at whatever time and each time it escalated much more. Suddenly there were executions, bodies hanging from bridges, dismembered bodies,” he recalls.
On February 22, 2014, Jesús worked as a correspondent for a national media outlet and covered the spectacular arrest of Joaquín Guzmán Loera in Mazatlán, Sinaloa. From that moment on, other media began to look for him, either to obtain images or to do stories from Sinaloa focused on violence and drug trafficking.
“When I became a correspondent I became a fixer. The national media opened the door to other contacts for me,” he mentions.
Jesús did not know what being a fixer was, much less that he could charge for those services. However, little by little he began to understand what this work entailed. He was soon able to collaborate with a renowned U.S. TV station that asked him to take a group of journalists to the town of La Tuna, in Badiraguato county, Guzmán Loera’s birthplace.
He remembers that they only told him: “we need you to take us to this place, to send us images; we need this or that. It was something sporadic. It wasn’t even a contract. It was a verbal agreement.”
They requested him to obtain access to document the Sinaloa cartel’s synthetic drug production process; to show the group’s warlike capacity, or find out what a hitman or Guzmán Loera’s relatives thought about the drug business.
“Is there a chance that we could go to a fentanyl lab?”
“Many, just like that, ask you for one thing, but when they show up here they ask you for more. They have a very strange view that everything is very simple. Suddenly they say: ‘We have a few free hours, is there a chance that we could go to a fentanyl lab?’’ And they think like: ‘ah ok, I’m going to take out the phone, I’m going to talk to someone and right now he’s going to open the lab door for me.’”
On another occasion, a group of armed men detained him and a group of foreign journalists. The journalists insisted that they wanted to go up to the community of La Tuna, even though Jesús recommended not going since they did not have permission from the criminal group’s lieutenants.
“I told them, ‘Okay, we are going to do it, but the moment we reach the checkpoint and a convoy comes out and stops us, we will turn back.’ They didn’t believe it would happen and it happened,” he recalls.
He says that the armed men made comments such as: “it’s dangerous. Maybe down the road you won’t make it back.” Jesus is sure that the men were trying to frighten them. It was then that they decided to return.
Jesús considers that the lack of decent wages in local media is one of the factors that forces reporters to work as fixers and take the great risks that this activity entails. He also says that there is no training to be a fixer in conflict zones, and that such work lacks any safety guarantees.
He also says that work became even more complicated after the imprisonment of Guzmán Loera, which, incidentally, put his sons in charge of his criminal enterprise. It was then that violence against Sinaloan journalists broke out again. On May 15, 2017, journalist Javier Valdez, internationally awarded and recognized for being an expert on drug trafficking issues, was murdered in broad daylight a few blocks from the weekly Riodoce that he founded along with other reporters in 2003.
Jesús acknowledges that this murder has made him reconsider the assignments and risks he runs when working covering these issues for international media.
“We always tell ourselves that no assignment is worth more than our life. But, sometimes, the attack comes without having imagined it,” he says.
Filmmakers, rappers and journalists
Miguel Ángel Vega, also from Sinaloa and author of the book “The Fixer,” says that much of his work involves documenting cartel violence according to society’s preconceived notions about how criminal groups operate and exert control.
In his book he tells the story of how he went from being a journalist in his home state to working as a producer in a heavily armed state like Michoacán. Thanks to his experience he was able to collaborate on the documentary “Cartel Land.”
Miguel Ángel describes himself as: “The journalist who serves as a link between foreign correspondents and the hell of the top brass of organized crime in Mexico.”
He defines a fixer as “a journalist connected to cartel bosses, hitmen, drug dealers, drug cooks, federal agents, military and police officers. His job is to make way for reporters or documentary filmmakers from countries such as the United States, Germany, France, Holland, Russia and other parts of the world, so that they can carry out their work in the most violent places where organized crime operates in Mexico.”
Miguel Ángel has also spoken about the pressure he feels to meet the demands of foreign crews and the difficulties of finding a balance between those demands and the reality of the criminal world.
While working in Ciudad Juárez in 2019, Miguel Ángel brought a crew to record an interview with hitmen. For security reasons, the interview would take place during the day, but at the last minute the meeting was postponed to that afternoon. When they were conducting the interview, the hitmen were attacked by a rival group of hitmen and one of them died during the attack. “That was very traumatic and it was a defeat for me,” the journalist said in a forum.
Emmanuel Massú is another fixer who came to the profession without realizing it. He is a rapper who, without journalistic training, guided a group of photographers to document music groups in Culiacán and show how they survive in the midst of violence and drug trafficking. He was paid well for his help—when he didn’t expect to receive any kind of remuneration. He was also told that he was very good with human connections and relationships and that he should think about helping other journalists.
Some time later, Emmanuel began working as a fixer in Tijuana, in rough neighborhoods of Mexico City such as Iztapalapa and Tepito, in Ecatepec on the outskirts of the Mexican capital, in La Paz, Los Cabos and the Chihuahua canyons. He and another fixer colleague, Eduardo Giraldo, decided to join forces to direct and film the award-winning documentary “Los Plebes,” which allows us to see the private lives of hitmen.
“I have experienced many things and I have learned from everything I have been through. It has cost me a lot of time, money (and) almost having my life taken away. It has been difficult for me to be in jail, in the hospital,” says Emmanuel. “I believe that the work of fixers is the artery at the heart of the news. We connect these arteries of the heart so that it can beat, so that the blood can get there.”
Emmanuel agrees with Jesus that fixers can only work so far before risking their own lives. He has turned down jobs because he wants to live and raise his children.
“The murders and violence here are fucked up; and for them to silence freedom of expression is really fucked up,” says Emmanuel about all the criminal activity he has witnessed. “No news story we publish is going to change the world, but much respect to those who [continue trying].”
Marcos Vizcarra, another native of Sinaloa, started working as a journalist in 2011. It was seven years ago, in 2016, that he worked as a fixer for the first time without realizing it. He caught the eye of international media due to his stories about victims of disappearance and displacement, as well as organized crime, which were published in national and regional media. On one occasion, his editor-in-chief asked him to show his sources to a group of foreign journalists who were going to reproduce his story. He did so, but was disappointed when he was not credited as a contributor.
“I didn’t receive a single payment for that because I didn’t know that that was also “fixing.” That work won an award and I didn’t even get credit,” he shares. Now he mainly tries to collaborate on projects where he is recognized and remunerated as a journalist.